Hillsboro couple experiences Romanian culture

Staff reporter

By chance, Shane Marler of Hillsboro met three men last summer in downtown Hillsboro.

They were harvest workers from Romania, seemingly a world away from Kansas, and were in the Hillsboro area for a few months to help with the local harvest.

Strangers in a strange land, the three were curious about Hillsboro and finding activities to do while temporarily living in the small Midwestern town. After all, they came from a city of nearly a half million people. Quite a culture shock, to say the least.

A friendship was forged between Shane and Morgan Marler and the three Europeans. The trio was included in backyard barbecues at the Marler home, giving their new friends a good taste of American life.

Wanting to open their homes to the Marlers, the Hillsboro couple traveled to Romania in February and spent nine days with their new friends, soaking up the culture and experiencing life in a country where democracy is new and fragile.

"They haven't quite figured out how to go about being a free country," Shane said.

The Marlers flew from Wichita to Chicago and then to Munich, Germany. From Munich, they flew to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania — a total of 26 hours. From there, their hosts picked them up at the airport and they rode two hours to Brasov (pronounced Brash-ov).

The former communist-ruled country joined the European Union on Jan. 1, 2007, after an eight-year transition from communism.

Long lines at grocery stores and virtually no competition in retail trade were indications to the Kansans that the newly independent country was working toward marketing, commerce, and importing.

"There were four hardware stores, all in a row, selling the exact same items at the same prices," Shane said.

Most of the items were shipped from China to Bucharest.

The Hillsboro couple stayed in Brasov which is located in the Carpathian Mountains, spending a few days and nights with each of the three men and their families.

"I enjoyed being able to meet and spend time with our friends' families and immersing ourselves in their culture as much as possible," Morgan said.

The Marlers aren't ones to follow tourists traps.

"Visiting another country is exciting and experiencing it with those who live there is even better," Morgan said. "You get to do things you never would have dreamed of doing had you been with tourist groups or staying in four-star hotels."

All three men, who are in their 30s, are married. One is a security guard, another a bus driver for a construction company, and the third owns his own retail shop. One had a two-year-old daughter, the other two did not have any children.

Shane said the shop owner had his business in a mall with several other businesses.

Another surprise for the travelers was the exchange value of money.

When the Marlers had traveled to other European countries, it generally took more American dollars to convert to the local currency but in this case, it took fewer — one American dollar was worth two and one-half "rons" or Romanian dollars.

"We had money to spend but no where to spend it," Shane said.

True irony.

Are there many tourists or attractions?

"Romania is just starting to market itself to tourists," Shane said.

A country steeped in tradition, the Marlers got a full taste of that.

"The food was awesome!" Morgan said.

For breakfast, the couple was greeted with a table full of different cheeses, several kinds of breads and meat, peppers, and olives.

"They were feasts," Morgan said.

At a dinner party, Shane noticed that the different age groups were segregated.

"The older people and younger people didn't mingle together," Shane said.

The older people were in the kitchen, preparing and serving the feast. Younger people gathered in another room of the house, not socializing with the other age groups of guests.

"When I helped with the dishes, the older women thought it was fantastic," Shane said.

Local samplings also included pork sausage and cow stomach soup, which seemed to be an acquired taste for Shane. As in many other cultures, there was a lot of food and one felt obligated to eat.

Few spoke English with Romanian being the local language.

Shane said he enjoyed visiting with the two-year-old daughter of one of the hosts because "her extent of Romanian was about the same as mine."

Students are taught six languages in the school system. The average income for a family with two incomes was $10,000 to $15,000 per year.

In comparison with England and the U.S., the cost of commodities in Romania was considerably lower. As a comparison, Shane said a package of cigarettes in England was $8 to $8.50 per pack, $3 to $4 in the U.S., and $1.80 to $2.00 in Romania.

Residents live in apartments instead of houses. The narrow streets were European with cobblestones and bricks. Shane said the traffic was similar to Paris — fast and furious.

Some of the more interesting tourist attractions the Marlers visited were castles. One in particular was that of Dracula.

Built in 1212 in the Carpathian Mountains, it is known as the Bran Castle where Vlad Tepes resided.

The world-travelers are glad they had the opportunity to visit their Romanian friends.

"It was somewhat of a culture shock for me," Morgan said. "It made me thankful for what I usually take for granted — a good job, safe home, and family nearby.

"It's funny how you have to travel half a world away to be reminded that you have it pretty darn good."

With any luck, the three men from Basov will return to Hillsboro this summer to do harvest work and renew their friendships, making that country a half a world away seem a little bit closer.

A little bit about Romania

Romania is located in southeastern Europe, bordering the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine. The entire country is slightly smaller than the state of Oregon and has a population of about 22.3 million people. The U.S. has 301 million people.

Most residents are of the Eastern Orthodox faith, and 91 percent speak Romanian, with 6.7 percent speaking Hungarian, and a little more than one percent speaking Romany or Gypsy.

There is an eight-hour time difference with Romania being ahead of the U.S.

For centuries the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were under the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1859 they united and became Romania. It gained recognition of its independence in 1878.

Romania joined the Allied powers in World War I and acquired new territories, most notably, Transylvania. In 1940, Romania allied with the Axis powers and participated in the 1941 German invasion of the USSR. Three years later, overrun by the Soviets, Romania signed an armistice.

The postwar Soviet occupation led to the formation of a Communist people's republic in 1947 and the abdication of the king.

In 1989 the decades-long rule of dictator Nicolae Ceasescu ended. Former Communists dominated the government until 1996 when they were swept from power.

Romania joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.